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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #25 - February 2006

This latest edition of the Classic Coming Attractions column is bracketed with new release information, firstly Warner Bros.' extensive 2006 plans and then the latest new announcements from all the studios - hence the New Announcements Plus part of the column title. In between, I offer reviews for 15 recent or forthcoming releases.


Warner Plans for 2006

As revealed recently in one of Bill Hunt's daily updates on The Bits, Warner Bros. has ambitious plans for classic releases in 2006. If you missed it, you can read Bill's complete report here. I have, however, extracted the news of direct interest to classic fans and it's summarized below. There's no information on specific titles, content, or timing available beyond what's indicated.

As a follow-up to Bill's report, I queried Warner Bros. on a number of other specific titles of continuing interest to myself particularly and classic enthusiasts in general. As one might expect, Warners was not willing to release specific information at this time, but they did indicate that virtually all of the following titles are in the hopper, either under active consideration or in production: King's Row (Reagan, Sheridan), The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear (both Welles), Black Legion (Bogart), They Won't Forget (Rains), Manhattan Melodrama, The Secret Six, San Francisco (all Gable), Gentleman Jim, Virginia City, Silver River, Edge of Darkness (all Flynn), The Mortal Storm (Stewart), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Robinson), Mission to Moscow (Huston), and Bowery Boys, Charlie Chan (the Monograms), and Andy Hardy series. It's all still vague information, I know, but promising nonetheless.

Now here's the summary of Bill's recent report on Warners' 2006 plans.

Two-disc Special Editions:

A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Forbidden Planet (1956, new feature-length documentary), Grand Prix (1967), The Maltese Falcon (1941, packaged with The Maltese Falcon [1931] and Satan Met a Lady [1936]), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, new feature-length documentary and audio commentaries), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Box Sets:

Astaire and Rogers Collection, Volume 2 [Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)]. [This is understood to be an August release.]

Bette Davis Collection, Volume 2 [a new Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: Two-Disc Special Edition (1962, with new and vintage documentaries and never-before-seen footage), Jezebel (1938), Old Acquaintance (1943), Marked Woman (1937), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)].

Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume One. The first release (from TCM Archives) will include Baby Face (1933), Red Headed Woman (1932) and Waterloo Bridge (1931, unseen since its original theatrical release) along with a new feature-length TCM documentary.

John Ford Collection [The Lost Patrol (1934), The Informer (1935), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Mary of Scotland (1936) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960)]

John Wayne/John Ford Collection [The Searchers: 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition (1956), Stagecoach: Two-Disc Special Edition (1939), Fort Apache (1948), The Long Voyage Home (1940), The Wings of Eagles (1957), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), They Were Expendable (1945) and 3 Godfathers (1948)]

Marlon Brando Signature Collection [Julius Caesar (1953), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and The Formula (1980)]

Warner Tough Guys Collection [G-Men (1935), Bullets or Ballots (1936), San Quentin (1937), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and City for Conquest (1940)]

Other Box Sets (film information incomplete at present):

Clark Gable [Mogambo (1953), Dancing Lady (1933), Boom Town (1940)], Film Noir [Lady in the Lake (1947)], Gary Cooper [Sergeant York (1941), The Hanging Tree (1959)], Humphrey Bogart [Passage to Marseille (1944), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Across the Pacific (1942)], James Stewart [The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), The Naked Spur (1953)], Paul Newman Taylor & Burton [a new two-disc edition of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) is expected to highlight this box]

News on Single Releases:

Knute Rockne: All American (1940) in 2006 [perhaps a Ronald Reagan box set, as King's Row and Storm Warning are also believed to be in the works?], Quo Vadis (1951) is being considered for future DVD release, but the Technicolor classic is going to require Ultra-Resolution restoration. Given the film's length, that's going to take significant time and be VERY expensive. Cool Hand Luke: Special Edition (1967) is tentatively being planned for 2007.

Warner is also going to launch a new series of Ultimate Collector's Editions, patterned after last year's deluxe version of King Kong. These will include tons of bonus features, books and booklets, production art cards, soundtrack CDs, souvenir programs and more. The first of these will be John Wayne and John Ford's The Searchers (already mentioned above).


Reviews

The reviews this time out provide coverage of releases from Fox (Week-end in Havana, Island in the Sun), Sony (The Cary Grant Box Set), Universal (Shadow of a Doubt, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Family Plot), and Warner Bros. (The Champ, Captains Courageous, Kitty Foyle), as well as Grapevine Video (The Girl from Calgary/Girl O' My Dreams), Mackinac Media (Industrial Strength Keaton, Stooges: The Men Behind the Mayhem), and VCI (Beyond All Limits). The reviews are presented chronologically by year of original theatrical release.

Industrial Strength Keaton

Industrial Strength Keaton (1917-1965)
(released on DVD by Mackinac Media on January 17th, 2006)

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/A


Laughsmith Entertainment, which in 2005 gave us the fine DVD presentations of Stooges: The Men Behind the Mayhem (reviewed later in this column) and The Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (to be reviewed in my next column), kicks off 2006 with another winner in its two-disc compendium of Buster Keaton efforts, Industrial Strength Keaton. The Laughsmith work is released through Mackinac Media.

Beyond the well-documented silent and early sound years in Hollywood, Buster Keaton kept very busy making all sorts of film and television appearances, particularly during the 1950s and early 1960s, right up until his death in May 1966. Many of these appearances were for commercial and industrial interests and are unknown to most casual Keaton fans. This new DVD release goes far to remedy that situation.

Disc One sets the stage by presenting a reconstructed version of the 1921 short, The Playhouse, followed by the recently discovered short in which Keaton has a cameo, Character Studies, and the full-length 1931 MGM feature Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. A 17-minute documentary - 1 Parlor, 5 Bedrooms and 6 Baths - provides some background on Keaton's mansion, The Italian Villa, before the disc is rounded out with several promotional films - Seeing Stars (~1922, an early appearance with Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan), The Voice of Hollywood #10 (1929), Hollywood on Parade #A-6 (1932), and the independent feature, An Old Spanish Custom (1935).

Disc Two contains the television, commercial and industrial work. The television shows illustrate the development of the "Can of Molasses" sketch from its original version on 1917's The Butcher Boy through The Ed Wynn Show (1949), The Ken Murray Show (1952), and You Asked for It (1957). Also included are appearances on a 1956 edition of The Martha Raye Show and the 1956 variety series, Circus Time. The commercials include various spots for Alka Seltzer, Country Club Malt Liquor, Northwest Orient Airlines, Simon Pure Beer, Shamrock Oil, Jeep, Milky Way candy bars, Ford Econoline vans, and Pure Oil. Finally, the industrial films include The Devil to Pay (1960, for the National Association of Wholesalers), The Home Owner (1961, for commercial housing in Phoenix), and The Triumph of Lester Snapwell (1963, for Kodak's Instamatic Camera).

Everyone will have his or her own favorites from amongst the five and a half hours of material presented here. Personally, I enjoyed the live television (particularly the Ed Wynn and Martha Raye appearances) and the two later industrial films best, but the commercials offered moments of interest as well. The image quality of these various items ranges from acceptable to good. The version of the familiar Parlor, Bedroom and Bath is also a pleasure of mine and the version on offer here is quite a decent-looking one that surpasses somewhat the various public domain releases already available. An Old Spanish Custom is quite tedious and looks rather dark and debris-ridden, although it is watchable. The new documentary on the Italian Villa is very interesting, providing among other things some information on the rediscovery and preservation of Keaton's silent features. In addition to all the Keaton content, there are half a dozen audio commentaries on selected items, several video reproductions of promotional booklets, a photo gallery, and a nice 20-page disc insert booklet that provides considerable guidance on the disc content. One of the essays therein notes that there is still significant other material to be accounted for and opines that an encore collection to this one may be possible. Highly recommended.


The Champ

The Champ (1931)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on January 31st)

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B


Originally shot in the late summer of 1931 and released in mid November by MGM, The Champ represented the initial teaming of Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. Beery played an ex-champion boxer and Cooper was his young son, Dink. Idolized by Dink, the champ aspires to a comeback that will put him back on top. Complicating things are the champ's propensity to drink and gamble, both of which lead to the champ's decision to allow his ex-wife to assume custody of Dink. When this arrangement doesn't work out, Dink and his father reunite just in time for Dink to act in his father's corner at the comeback fight - one for which the champ seems ill-prepared.

The Champ was the young Cooper's first film at MGM and signaled the beginning of a successful career there as a child actor. Beery, conversely, was at the height of his popularity and won a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts (he tied with Fredric March, who received his statue for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Although Jackie Cooper reportedly never cared much for Beery, the two's work together in The Champ was successful and popular enough to warrant being re-teamed three times over the next four years in The Bowery (1933), Treasure Island (1934), and O'Shaughnessy's Boy (1935).

The story portrayed in The Champ is a sentimental one that has defied the passage of time. It's still an affecting tale because of the excellent work of its two leads. The role of the faded champ is particularly suited to Beery's blustery style while Cooper manages to keep the sentimental aspects of the story from compromising the inner strength of his character and overpowering his performance. Director King Vidor's work in guiding Cooper and thus striking the right balance here must be acknowledged. The fight scenes, if not too realistic compared to more modern stagings, are quite energetic and develop sufficient rapport with the audience to make the film's resolution satisfying. Look for the familiar faces of Rosco Ates and Edward Brophy in supporting roles and nice work from both Irene Rich and Hamilton Hale as Dink's mother and step-father.

Warner Bros.' DVD presentation is highly appealing. For a film that's now 75 years old, the image is exceptionally sharp and well detailed. Source material defects are not significant and modest film grain combined with good contrast makes for a nice film-like experience. The mono sound has some minor hiss, but is otherwise clear and unmuffled. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplements consist of the bizarre though entertaining vintage short Crazy House (in colour), a Lux Radio Theatre production of the film with Beery from 1939, and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.


The Girl from Calgary/Girl O' My Dreams

The Girl from Calgary (1932)
Girl O' My Dreams (1934)
(released on DVD-R by Grapevine Video in January 2006)

Film Rating (Calgary): C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C/E


Film Rating (Dreams): B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/E


This is one of two discs of early sound films on Grapevine Video's slate of January releases. (The other double feature is Sinful Cargo/Captain Calamity, which will be reviewed in my next column. Interested readers should note that these are DVD-R releases, available only through Grapevine Video's on-line site at grapevinevideo.com.) I hope to be able to include reviews of such lesser-known product in my column more frequently in future. The disc reviewed here includes The Girl from Calgary and Girl O' My Dreams - both low budget Monogram films made in the early 1930s.

Girl O' My Dreams is all about a big upcoming track meet with the complications of college romance mixed in to throw a monkey wrench into Rawley College's chances against Stanton College. It's a completely predictable college musical comedy, but it features a host of up-and-coming young players that are so enthusiastic that the results provide pleasing entertainment. Prominent are Arthur Lake as the school pole vaulter (who always seems to be doing a version of Dagwood Bumstead no matter what he's in), Sterling Holloway as the editor of the college paper, and Lon Chaney Jr. (here billed as Creighton Chaney) as the shot put and discus man. Mary Carlisle is the female lead with the Crane Sisters playing twin college coeds named Nip and Tuck. The film has three songs, the best of which is the melodic "Lucky Star". One of the other songs, "Thou Art My Baby" (with lyrics about a bimbo and being in limbo), actually features Lon Chaney Jr. singing and you know, he's not bad. At a brisk 63 minutes, it all whistles by effortlessly and leaves one feeling upbeat. Better yet, Grapevine's transfer is surprisingly good. Apparently taken from a print intended for television release (the opening Monogram credit has been replaced by a "Motion Pictures for Television" heading, although the closing Monogram logo is intact), the image looks bright and reasonably crisp with very nice contrast and shadow detail. There are numerous scratches and speckles and a few rough jump cuts, but they don't affect one's enjoyment. The mono sound is quite legible although there is at least one instance of a couple of seconds of missing dialogue.

The Girl from Calgary is much less successful. One gets the impression Monogram managed to get its hands on some actual footage of the parade and events of the Calgary Stampede and figured it might as well use it as the starting point for a film. The story proceeds to tell how a local Calgary girl (Fifi D'Orsay) becomes a Broadway celebrity through the help of a local promoter (Paul Kelly) who eventually, surprise, falls for her. Once Fifi leaves Calgary, there isn't another mention of the city and she might as well be the girl from Timbuktoo for all the difference her origin makes to the plot. There are some complications provided by a sleazy promoter. The latter is played by familiar face Edwin Maxwell, who is the most memorable player in the cast by the way. Leads Fifi D'Orsay and Paul Kelly are not up to the task and the film stumbles to a very weak ending. Grapevine's DVD presentation is not as strong as for Girl O' My Dreams. The image is merely watchable, but characterized by frequent softness and frequent speckles and scratches that seem more intrusive, perhaps because the film itself doesn't hold the same degree of interest that the other did. The mono sound is workable. Interested purchasers should note that the 63-minute feature is entirely in black and white although the title and opening sequences were reportedly in colour when originally released.

This double feature release from Grapevine has no other features on it other than the two films. I would reiterate that this is a DVD-R disc, which may pose problems for some players, but I encountered no difficulties on the Sony, Pioneer, and DVD-ROM players I tested it on. For those with an interest in early B titles in general and specifically the output of Monogram Pictures, Girl O' My Dreams alone makes the release worth a try.


Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous (1937)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on January 31st, 2006)

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/B-


Spencer Tracy won his first Best Actor Academy Award for his role as the Portuguese fisherman Manuel in Captains Courageous. Manuel is part of the crew of the fishing schooner "We're Here", which has sailed out of Gloucester, Massachusetts looking for cod off the Grand Banks. He saves 10-year-old Harvey Cheyne who has fallen off an ocean liner and under his guidance, Harvey is transformed from an obnoxious spoiled brat into a thoughtful young man.

Captains Courageous is based on the Rudyard Kipling novel of the same title published in 1897, and was one of the final films scheduled for production by MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. Thalberg's death in September 1936 actually delayed the beginning of principal photography for several days, but once begun, the shoot lasted with some breaks until February 1937 - a somewhat lengthier period than normal for films of the time.

Exterior and background photography was done in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Massachusetts while location work by the second unit occurred in the Florida Keys and off the coast of Mexico. The cast for the film utilized the impressive MGM contract roster of the time and as well as Spencer Tracy, included Lionel Barrymore, Freddie Bartholomew (the 19-year-old Harvey of Kipling's novel was changed to a 10-year-old boy to more closely fit Batholomew's age), and Mickey Rooney. Melvyn Douglas was borrowed from Columbia to play Harvey's father. The resulting film is high adventure, combining a warm-hearted story of the bonding between a man and a young boy with well-executed and exciting action sequences. It is uniformly well-acted by the whole cast (with Tracy fully deserving of his Oscar), but also tightly directed by Victor Fleming who successfully walks a fine line between sentiment and realism. The film's ending is handled with sensitivity and remains effective some 70 years later.

Warner Bros.' DVD presentation of Captains Courageous is very good. The film generally looks sharp and nicely detailed, with deep blacks and clean whites. There are some speckles and the odd vertical line, but these never intrude. Some film grain is in evidence, as one should expect. The mono sound has some low-grade hiss at times, but otherwise offers a good account of itself particularly during the storm sequences. A French track as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Supplements include the rather disappointing vintage short The Little Maestro, the cartoon Little Buck Cheeser, a "Leo Is on the Air" radio promo for the film, and two reissue theatrical trailers. Recommended.


The Cary Grant Box Set

The Cary Grant Box Set

The Awful Truth (1937)
Holiday (1938)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Talk of the Town (1942)
(released on DVD by Sony on February 7th, 2006)

Sony has given us some of the real cream from Cary Grant's career in this new five-disc compilation, packaged as a fold-out digipak. For veteran Cary Grant fans, the chief attraction of this box set is the inclusion of Holiday, a title previously unavailable on DVD. (At this time, it is not available separately.) New also to this set are short background featurettes on four of the titles, new transfers for the four titles previously released, and a set of ten 5x7 postcards containing B&W production stills or colour poster art.

His Girl Friday is the best film in the set, though only marginally ahead of The Awful Truth. In it, Grant is a New York newspaper editor who tries to get his ace reporter and former wife (Rosalind Russell) to cover the escape of a convicted killer, but she'd rather retire to Albany and the simple pleasures of marriage to Ralph Bellamy. The film, directed by Howard Hawks at the height of his career, is famous for the staccato, overlapping dialogue spoken by the principals. All three principal actors are perfectly in sync and supported by a wealth of fine character performers (Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, John Qualen, Billy Gilbert, etc.), the film is a riot throughout. His Girl Friday is a public domain title for which numerous poor PD transfers abound, but Columbia did the right thing in issuing a superb DVD version of its own five years ago. That effort included an excellent image transfer that appears to be virtually identical in this new edition. Todd McCarthy's audio commentary and the four background featurettes are also included as is the vintage advertising and the film's trailer. Dropped from the new edition are some talent files, the short production notes included as an insert with the original disc, and some of the subtitling (only English and French are now included).

Film Rating (His Girl Friday): A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A-


The Awful Truth is the earliest of the quintessential Grant comedy films. He's matched with Irene Dunne (one of the great 1930s actresses, later sadly much forgotten) in a screwball comedy of supposed marital infidelity that leads to divorce, with both parties developing new relationships. Dunne's is with good old Ralph Bellamy. Grant and Dunne remain in constant contact, however, due to the visiting rights that Grant has with their dog Mr. Smith (Asta). Inevitably, the two realize that they're meant for each other, but it may be too late. As with His Girl Friday, this film is high entertainment throughout, though not quite as frenetic. Both Grant and Dunne shine equally. The sequences involving Grant's acquaintance Dixie doing her "wind" dance and Dunne's later parody of it are side-splitting for the facial reactions alone. The Awful Truth was previously released on DVD by Columbia three years ago in a disappointing transfer. This new transfer is welcome in that it reduces somewhat the excessive grain that plagued the older release and also cleans up the worst of the scratches. There's still room for more improvement, however. The original release offered several bonus trailers, but these are missing from the new edition as are some of the subtitles (only English and French now appear). One new supplement is a seven-minute featurette that purports to be about The Awful Truth, but is mainly focused on Grant himself and provides some background on how Grant came to Hollywood bolstered by comments from various film critics and historians. It's a pretty weak effort. Also present (it appears on most of the discs in the set) is a DVD trailer for a forthcoming box set of Frank Capra films that will include It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Platinum Blonde, and the new-to-DVD American Madness (1932, with Walter Huston).

Film Rating (The Awful Truth): A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/C-


Only Angels Have Wings is the anomaly in the set, a drama focusing on the lives of flyers working for an air freight company operating in the Andes Mountains. Grant, as the head of the company, finds himself the object of the affections of two women played by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. The film is beautifully shot and directed by Howard Hawks who claimed it to be based on a true story. It was a typically Hawksian film with its emphasis on male bonding and on strong female characters. Grant proved to be equally as effective in more serious roles as in his traditional comedy ones, perhaps presaging his later success with Hitchcock. For Hayworth, it was the breakthrough film that brought her a long-term contract with Columbia. The film benefited from another fine supporting cast including Richard Barthelmess, Thomas Mitchell, Sig Rumann, Allyn Joslyn, and Noah Berry Jr. Columbia first issued Only Angels Have Wings on DVD seven years ago with an excellent image transfer. This new release looks virtually identical to the earlier one. The new edition drops the vintage advertising, talent files, production notes (disc insert), some subtitles (only English and French now appear), and bonus trailers from the original release, but adds a new seven-minute featurette on the film. It's still a modest supplement, but is more focused on the film itself than was the one on The Awful Truth disc.

Film Rating (Only Angels Have Wings): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C-


Holiday is based on the Philip Barry play of the same title and finds Grant preparing to marry into a wealthy family. His plan is to work only until he has enough money to finance an extended holiday that will allow him to experience life, but this runs contrary to the expectations of his wife-to-be and her parents. His fiancee's sister (Katherine Hepburn) is more in tune with Grant's view of life, and the two begin to form a relationship that may jeopardize the planned wedding. The film is stylishly directed by George Cukor who draws excellent performances from Grant and Hepburn. Not as funny a film as either His Girl Friday or The Awful Truth, Holiday is still a witty outing that offers plenty of entertainment value. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon offer excellent support to Grant and Hepburn as Grant's friends, The Potters. Also present is the typically impressive Columbia supporting cast - this time including the likes of Lew Ayres, Henry Daniell, Binnie Barnes, and Henry Kolker. The film has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in conjunction with Columbia and looks fairly good on DVD. The image is quite sharp on the whole, but there are a few soft sections and excessive grain is evident at times. Speckles and some scratches are in evidence. Holiday looks better than did The Awful Truth in its original DVD release, but on balance is now the weakest looking of the five films in the new box set. The mono sound is clear and free of distortion although there is some mild hiss at times. English, French, Portuguese, Korean, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Supplements include several trailers (not one for Holiday) and a new seven-minute featurette on Cary Grant at Columbia which does provide some background on Holiday's production but also deals with other films as well. It has the same mix of stills and interviews as the other new featurettes in the box set. There is a short two-minute featurette showing various still photographs taken during the shooting of a winter sequence of Grant and his fiancée set in Lake Placid. This was intended to be included at the start of the film, but was later deleted as Cukor was never convinced of its merits.

Film Rating (Holiday): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/C


The Talk of the Town was a finely balanced blend of comedy and social significance, reuniting Grant and director George Stevens after their success with Penny Serenade. See my review of the original DVD release here. The film's new transfer is an improvement over that of the previous release by way of increased consistency and reduced speckles and scratches. Shadow detail is still a problem at times, but there is increased sharpness overall. As with The Awful Truth, however, there is still room for further improvement. The new disc drops some of the subtitles (only English and French are now included) and the bonus trailers present on the original release, but adds a five-minute featurette that has George Stevens Jr. talking about his father working on The Talk of the Town. Despite its brevity, it's the best of the new featurettes that Sony has included in the box set.

Film Rating (The Talk of the Town): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/C


The Cary Grant Box Set with the inclusion of Holiday is a bargain at under $40 on-line compared to the price of the original other four releases (currently about $80 in total on-line). With new transfers, most of the significant supplements from the original discs ported over, some modest new features, and a nice set of postcards with vintage photography, this set is highly recommended.


On to Part Two

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